Monday, July 21, 2008

The Decline and Fall of Work

Here is chapter 5 from Raoul Vaneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life that I've turned into a slightly more interesting hypertext. The book is essential reading and I find it to be better written and more worthwhile than Debord's Society of the Spectacle - a book I only read while engaged in the art of defecation. (Only 40 more shits to go, and I'll be done!)


The obligation to produce alienates the passion for creation. Productive labour is part and parcel of the technology of law and order. The Working day grows shorter as the empire of conditioning expands.


In an industrial society which confuses work and productivity, the necessity of producing has always been an enemy of the desire to create. What spark of humanity, of possible creativity, can remain alive in a being dragged out of sleep at six every morning, jolted about in suburban trains, deafened by the racket of machinery, bleached and steamed by meaningless sounds and gestures, spun dry by statistical controls, and tossed out at the end of the day into the entrance halls of railway stations, those cathedrals of departure for the hell of weekdays and the purgatory paradise of weekends, where the crowd communes in a brutish weariness? From adolescence to retirement each twenty-four-hour cycle repeats the same shattering bombardment, like bullets hitting a window: mechanical repetition, time-which-is-money, submission to bosses, boredom, exhaustion. From the crushing of youth's energy to the gaping wound of old age, life cracks in every direction under the blows of forced labour. Never before has a civilisation reached such a degree of contempt for life; never before has a generation, drowned in mortification, felt such a rage to live. The same people who are murdered slowly in the mechanised slaughterhouses of work are also arguing, singing, drinking, dancing, making love, taking to the streets, picking up weapons and inventing a new poetry. Already the front against forced labour is forming; its gestures of refusal are moulding the consciousness of the future. Every call for productivity under the conditions chosen by capitalist and Soviet economics is a call to slavery.

That it is necessary to produce is so obvious a fact that even a hack like Jean Fourastié can easily fill a dozen tomes with proofs of it. Unfortunately for neo-political economists, the proofs they adduce are nineteenth-century ones, harking back to a time when the misery of the working classes made the right to work analogous to the right to slavery, as claimed from the dawn of time by prisoners about to be massacred. Above all it was a question of surviving, of not disappearing physically. The imperatives of production are the imperatives of survival; from now on people want to live, not just survive.

The tripalium is an instrument of torture. The Latin word labor means 'suffering'. We are unwise to forget this origin of the words 'travail' and 'labour'. At least the nobility never forgot their own dignity and the indignity which marked their bondsmen. The aristocratic contempt for work reflected the master's contempt for the dominated classes; work was the expiation to which they were condemned for all eternity by the divine decree which had willed them, for impenetrable reasons, to be inferior. Work took its place among the sanctions of Providence as the punishment for poverty, and, because it was the means to a future salvation, such a punishment could take on the attributes of pleasure. Basically, though, work was less important than submission.

The bourgeoisie does not dominate, it exploits. It does not need to be master, it prefers to use. Why has nobody seen that the principle of productivity simply replaced the principle of feudal authority? Why has nobody wanted to understand this?

Is it because work ameliorates the human condition and saves the poor, at least in illusion, from eternal damnation? Undoubtedly, but today it seems that the carrot of happier tomorrows has smoothly replaced the carrot of salvation in the next world. In both cases the present is always under the heel of oppression.

Is it because work transforms nature? Yes, but what can I do with a nature ordered in terms of profit and loss, a world where the inflation of techniques conceals the deflation of the use-value of life? Besides; just as the sexual act is not intended to procreate, but makes children by accident, organised labour transforms the surface of continents as a by-product, not a purpose. Work to transform the world? Bullshit. The world is being transformed in the direction prescribed by the existence of forced labour; which is why it is being transformed so badly.

Perhaps man realises himself through his forced labour? In the nineteenth century the concept of work retained a vestige of the notion of creativity. Zola describes a nailsmiths' contest in which the workers competed in the perfection of their tiny masterpiece. Love of the trade and the vitality of an already smothered creativity incontestably helped fifteen hours of effort, which nobody could have stood if some kind of pleasure had not slipped in. The survival of the craft conception allowed each worker to contrive a precarious comfort in the hell of the factory. But Taylorism dealt the death-blow to a mentality which had been carefully fostered by archaic capitalism. It is useless to expect even a caricature of creativity from the conveyor belt. Nowadays ambition and the love of a job well done are the indelible mark of defeat and submission. Which is why, wherever submission is demanded, the stale fart of ideology makes headway, from the Arbeit Macht Frei of the concentration camps to the homilies of Henry Ford and Mao Tse-tung.

So what is the function of forced labour? The myth of power exercised jointly by the master and God drew its coercive force from the unity of the feudal system. Destroying the unitary myth, the fragmented power of the bourgeoisie inaugurated, under the flag of crisis, the reign of ideologies, which can never attain, separately or together, a fraction of the efficacy of myth. The dictatorship of productive work stepped into the breach. Its mission is to weaken the majority of people physically, to castrate and stupefy them collectively and so make them receptive to the feeblest, least virile, most senile ideologies in the entire history of falsehood.

Most of the proletariat at the beginning of the nineteenth century had been physically diminished, systematically broken by the torture of the workshop. Revolts came from artisans, from privileged or unemployed groups, not from workers shattered by fifteen hours of labour. Significantly, the reduction of working time came just when the ideological variety show produced by consumer society seemed able to provide an effective replacement for the feudal myths destroyed by the young bourgeoisie. (People really have worked for a refrigerator, a car, a television set. Many still do, "invited" as they are to consume the passivity and the empty time that the "necessity" of production "offers" them.)

Statistics published in 1938 indicated that the use of the most modern technology would reduce necessary working time to three hours a day. Not only are we a long way off with our seven hours, but after wearing out generations of workers by promising them the happiness which is sold today on the installment plan, the bourgeoisie (and its Soviet equivalent) pursue man's destruction outside the workshop. Tomorrow they will deck out their five hours of necessary wear and tear with a time of "creativity" which will grow just as fast as they can fill it with the impossibility of creating anything (the famous "leisure explosion").

It has been quite correctly said that "China faces gigantic economic problems; for her, productivity is a matter of life and death". Nobody would dream of denying it. What seems important to me is not the economic imperatives, but the manner of responding to them. The Red Army in 1917 was a new kind of organisation. The Red Army of the 1960s is an army such as is found in capitalist countries. Events have shown that its effectiveness remains far below the potential of a revolutionary militia. In the same way, the planned Chinese economy, by refusing to allow federated groups to organise their work autonomously, condemns itself to becoming another example of the perfected form of capitalism called socialism. Has anyone bothered to study the approaches to work of primitive peoples, the importance of play and creativity, the incredible yield obtained by methods which the application of modern technology would make a hundred times more efficient? Obviously not. Every appeal for productivity comes from above. But only creativity is spontaneously rich. It is not from "productivity" that a full life is to be expected, it is not "productivity" that will produce an enthusiastic response to economic needs. But what can we say when we know how the cult of work is honored from Cuba to China, and how well the virtuous pages of Guizot would sound in a May Day speech?

To the extent that automation and cybernetics foreshadow the massive replacement of workers by mechanical slaves, forced labour is revealed as belonging purely to the barbaric practices needed to maintain order. Power manufactures the dose of fatigue necessary for the passive assimilation of its televised diktats. What carrot is worth working for, after this? The game is up; there is nothing to lose any more, not even an illusion. The organisation of work and the organisation of leisure are the blades of the castrating shears whose job is to improve the race of fawning dogs. One day, perhaps, we shall see strikers, demanding automation and a ten-hour week, choosing, instead of picketing, to make love in the factories, the offices and the culture centers. Only the planners, the managers, the union bosses and the sociologists would be suprised and worried. Not without reason; after all, their skin is at stake.

1 comment:

Ha'Penny Dreadfuller said...

I find it very interesting that you have also been reading this. Here is a link for your readers if they feel inclined to read it online.
The Revolution of Everyday Life
.
From there they may also read other
Situationist material.